How the search for new technology always led me back to the enduring mysteries of being human
The story of founding recknsense, dedicated to new ideas in technology viewed through a human lens
My career has always been in technology and innovation. I started out, like many people do in the industry, as a developer building pieces of a bigger product that eventually made its way to real people. As you would expect I thought about the customers but the majority of my focus was on getting bits of code to work as intended. There was lots of logic, maths and running of programs and I loved the satisfaction that comes with building something. After all the planning, designing, coding and testing, there was a product that people could use. The tricky bit was building a product that people loved to use. Knowing what would appeal to people is not easy and as I moved on from software development into product management and innovation, I was reminded of this time and time again.
Attempting to build innovative products requires an understanding of how humans might behave, what they want, and predicting what they might be thinking
My technology background hadn’t really prepared me for that. There is an area of technology that you won’t stop hearing about called Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s justified that AI (or machine learning to give the more technical description) should be talked about so much — because it’s applied everywhere. Even if you aren’t chatting to Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant, you’ll be unknowingly utilizing the benefits of machine learning under the hood of the products you use. The algorithms that come with machine learning use your data (and that of millions of others) to finely predict what you might want to see or hear or buy.
As a technologist, you can’t avoid AI and I found myself in the field, thinking about it more and more. I felt that the design of new products and the emergence of AI were heading to the same question — how can we find out more about how humans really behave? I started writing my thoughts down on what the future of technology and AI might look like. My first article about Intelligent products that should give you a superpower, got a surprising number of hits which gave me a boost of confidence. Maybe it was worth thinking about this stuff more deeply. I wrote a couple more articles before I realized I had a lot of research still to do if we wanted to come up with new ideas.
What inspired me to go outside of my technology focused comfort zone and starting down a more human path? Five years ago I moved to the SF Bay Area. As anybody in the technology industry will tell you, this is where you dream of going. It’s where you believe ideas flow and the rewards will surely follow. I couldn’t have landed in a better place — at a large company working on a high profile AI project. In the summer of 2015, I relocated half way across the world with my two young daughters and husband in tow. This is it I thought, this is where people change the world (for the better I assumed). Well you can guess that it didn’t quite work out that way. Before long, I realized building a product was the same anywhere in the world. The same challenges, the same guesswork to what might appeal to users and the same mistakes and human shaped errors could occur. But the biggest surprise to me was the same lack of understanding about human behavior existed in Silicon Valley just like anywhere else. I’m not sure what I expected but I was hoping that the now infamous products that we use in our everyday lives were built with more insight into human nature. Perhaps this did happen in other places but from where I was, despite user research being undertaken, most ‘new’ ideas were modifications or copies of something else.
Now I know that I wasn’t alone to feel this way. Recently there have been organizations and researchers that have come to recognize the same lack of ‘human centeredness’ like the Center for Human Technology and Stanford Human Centered AI . Along the same theme if you haven’t watched The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix, I highly recommend you check it out.
ByJanuary 2019 (3 years after I moved to the Bay), I decided it was time to build something of my own where I could learn, write and build new ideas, all in one place. I tend to learn most effectively by writing and I readily consume a lot of knowledge through books, magazines, blogs, and articles.
I decided it was time I shared my thoughts and deliberations online hoping that this could lead me to new ideas I was searching for — and so I started recknsense.com
The natural place for me to start was in those fields where we already study the science of humans. I found myself naturally inclined towards neuroscience, psychology, and anything on the workings of the brain. Somewhere in that I thought, was bound to be some secrets of human intelligence and behavior that could be applied in technology.
My journey took me through the paths of Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience and even Quantum Theory as I attempted to make connections between the fields. I read anything I could find on the topics especially those could summarize and make clear the key concepts for a novice. A tip — don’t knock the easy guides and simple high level explanations as they can open the door to more in depth investigation.
Unfortunately about 3 months into my venture, illness struck. A really bad illness. It was a serious and life threatening condition that meant I could only manage the bare minimum to keep the project ticking over for the year. One day I will write more on that experience but for now, suffice to say, the project to understand more about technology and the human connection was temporarily put on hold. However, after a year of contemplation arising from my major life event and with the subsequent arrival of Covid-19, I found myself even more interested in the human condition. I wanted to continue what I had started with more determination than I had before.
So what did I discover? A lot as it happens. Most striking is that there are significant overlaps between fields which is only increasing as we discover more areas of convergence between the science of humans and technology.
The mysteries of how we are built and how we think, are likely to be around forever but we are turning up new and important clues over time.
Here are some examples of what I discovered:
- Quantum physics (or mechanics) has implications for our understanding of many natural phenomenon including time. There are some scientists that even believe quantum mechanics could be connected to consciousness. I have written more about the latter, including where quantum theory may have connections with the brain (I wrote this before coming across Nobel prize winning physicist Roger Penrose’s books where he argues strongly on this same topic). It seems the quantum effects we see consistently in experiments on the smallest of particles could have far reaching consequences. If everything in this world is reduced down to a quantum level, it is easy to believe it affects everything, including us. The evidence of the quantum effect in the human brain is limited though and we are left to theories. Intriguing theories but still theories and far from established fact. I am currently reading ‘Beyond Biocentrism’ by Robert Lanza which wraps a lot of this together into an overall theory on quantum, time, consciousness and death. Let’s see where it takes me next but its fascinating to see the fields overlapping and evolving.
- The study of neuroscience and the brain has had enormous attention in recent years. New imaging technology has permitted us to measure how the brain responds to stimuli and this has expanded our knowledge and allowed us to speculate further on what could be happening. Understanding how the brain operates could give us vital clues to how we can make more efficient ‘artificial brains’. I decided to get an in depth understanding through a EdX online course — you can read about it here. I discovered there were many similarities between electronics and the neurological structure of the brain and how it operates. Voltage, current, resistance — all concepts I’d studied in electronic engineering came up again in neuroscience. My decision to write about my experience turned out to be a fruitful one as I was contacted by a neuroscience researcher who shared with me the strides being made in new types of neural networks (and their algorithms) that more closely modeled the brain. In fact we wrote an article together about these new types of ‘Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs) use time as a factor and could accelerate the progress of Artificial Intelligence.
- Research into ‘thinking’ and how we make decisions is another field that continues to expand. We used to believe the mind makes logical, rational decisions when given the appropriate information but it turns out it is a lot more complicated. We only need to see the evidence of the reality that shows we humans tend to think in sometimes unpredictable ways. There was a lot of excitement about the bestselling ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman that provide a simple breakdown of a ‘dual systems thinking — we sometimes think fast and reflexively and other times slow and deliberate depending on the situation. A more recent book called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber looks to form a better understanding of what it is ‘to reason’. It has some further insight into the dual systems thinking and points to the fact that when we reason we aren’t doing what we would expect — it’s less about logic than we think. Reason and other expansions on how we think like common sense decision making are areas that could really help us improve AI. If we could better model what we as humans do already to make efficient, effective decisions, it could open up the possibility of more accurate and useful machine learning. I wrote an article that asked whether we could codify reason and how we could conceive of a ‘thinking machine’ beyond the methods we use today.
- Finally, the I’ve featured some guest articles from industry professionals who have also shone a light on the very human impacts in digital transformation or in products they build e.g. an exploration of personality profiling to improve marketing to customers.
Wherever we turn, we find we need to know more about ourselves to improve the quality of the technology and products we build — not just the mechanics of putting it together. In Physics we always thought about the big forces that make up our universe with little on the physics inside us. But we are more than just another physical object featured in force-gravity type calculations. We are humans with our own set of human features that set us apart from other objects.
I think the future needs new types of practitioners. Knowing how to code or manage the delivery of a product is great and to be encouraged but it’s nowhere near enough for what we need in the future.
Nowhere is diversity required more than in product development and technology right now.
I remember saying this on a panel to young female graduates 6 years ago and it’s even more true now. We need more diversity in product development so we can rethink our designs. How we share information, the questions we ask, how we get recommendations, how we make decisions, these all could be improved if we start applying our new found knowledge of how we work as humans.
To read more, check out recknsense.com